Portraits from the Mind

The works of William Utermohlen—1955 to 2000

A retrospective of the artist’s work before and after his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease

The late self-portraits of William Utermohlen, chronicling his descent into Alzheimer’s disease, have been widely exhibited in the United States and Europe. In this exhibit, the largest and most comprehensive retrospective to date,  early and late works have been brought together to illustrate the continuity, as well as the rupture brought about by dementia in William Utermohlen’s art. The intense personal psychological scrutiny that is evident in the artist’s late work is a pervasive aspect of his work from the beginning, and is central to his identity as an artist throughout his career. While other artists of great stature have reportedly suffered from Alzheimer’s disease no one has been able to capture the personal experience of dementia in such an articulate and powerful manner. William’s lifelong dedication to psychological observation and its translation into painting and drawing allows us to pinpoint, before the disease was diagnosed, the precise moments when the seeds of Alzheimer’s were in their nascence. Among the artists of his generation, he was uniquely dedicated to faithful representation of the visual and psychological spaces he inhabited. Even as other aspects of his reality were stripped away by the disease, that ability remained.

The Early Portraits: 1955-1977

William Utermohlen was born on December 4, 1933, in South Philadelphia, the only son of first-generation German immigrant parents. After graduating from high school in 1951, he won a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania academy of the fine arts, one of the finest art academies in the United States. There he received a thorough grounding in the traditional academic skills for which the school was famous, training under Walter Stuempfig, the noted realist American painter. This was William’s first chance to escape south Philadelphia and his working class background. In the late 1950s, the GI bill enabled him to travel extensively in Europe on scholarship. In France, Spain, and Italy, he discovered and developed a lifelong love for the work of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, and Nicolas Poussin.

From 1957 to 1959, he attended the Ruskin school of drawing and fine art at the Ashmolean museum in oxford. there he found himself in the company of other ex-army American students, including R.B. Kitaj. In 1962 William met the future art historian Patricia Redmond. He settled with her in London where they were married in 1965

Self-Portrait 1955

pencil on paper, 28 x 21 cm

1 self-portrait-1955

This is an early self-portrait dating from William’s apprenticeship at the Pennsylvania Academy of the fine arts. The characteristic asymmetry in the face and the protruding ear are featured in his last portraits too. All of these early portraits have a youthfully romantic and soulful look. This is the most intense. The left eye stares out angrily whereas the right looks extinguished. The two eyes seem to represent the classic duality between outer and inner vision.

Self Portrait (half length) 1955

pencil on paper 28x21 cm

Carroll joynes  collection, chicago

2 self-portrait half-length 

 

The young William stands looking straight ahead with his hands in his pockets. The eyes are equally focused and are here melancholy and appealing. The mouth is sensuous with delicate lips.  The mood is calmer and more collected than in Self Portrait 1955.

 

 

Self-Portrait (small)1956

ink on paper, 12.5 x 7.5 cm

DIMITRI PAPALEXIS  COLLECTION, PARIS

3 self-portrait small 1956

In this youthful self portrait the artist stares through his glasses with an air of purposeful concentration. The mouth is tightly shut and the hair in romantic disarray.  The quick nervous lines add energy and movement to the air of quiet tenacity.

 

Self-Portrait 1956

oil on board, 122 x 59 cm

Robert Ellis & Jane Bernstein collection, San Francisco

4 self-portrait 1956

The full length Self-Portrait 1956 in oil on board shows an asymmetrical face with a pronounced right ear. It emphasizes William’s extreme thinness. The painter assumes an aloof pose in the rebellious uniform of 1950s young men:  white t-shirt and jeans. The attitude is vulnerable yet defiant. He has situated himself in the hall of his mother’s house in Germantown, Philadelphia. He is just setting off for Europe and possibly has the premonition that he will never come back.

Self-Portrait 1967

mixed media on paper, 26.5 x 20 cm

5 self-portrait 1967

Elan Pharmaceuticals collection, San Francisco

At the height of his creative powers, after having just finished his first great cycle of paintings depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno, the artist glares at the viewer with an expression of mixed pride and pain. The features and skull are powerfully drawn, revealing William’s skills as a classic draftsman. The hunched shoulders, the receding hairline, and the delicate neck speak of premature aging and a sense of vulnerability. The three-quarter view of the head and the big, awkwardly projecting ear reappear in the compositions of his last self-portraits of 1996 to 1998. The penetrating gaze of the right eye retains its power but loses, in the last portraits, its assurance, which is replaced by anger or dread.

Self-Portrait (Split) 1977

oil and photography on canvas, 25.5 x 20 cm

6 self-portrait-spli 1977

 

In the 1970s, William began printing photographs directly onto canvas and painting over them. He developed this technique in response to the Photorealist movement, which was the first figurative art movement to gain visibility in what was then the high period of minimal and conceptual art. He created a series of intense and penetrating portraits of himself, his wife, and people close to him.

In Self-Portrait (Split) 1977, William uses the experimental procedure of painting over photographic enlargements printed on canvas with light-sensitive emulsion. Half of the head is entirely painted over. The other side shows the photographic print. But here the red paint of the background has eliminated the errant right ear and the hair as if the artist were a penitent figure or a convict. The split space and the dramatic red and black composition are used again to great effect in Self-Portrait (With Saw) 1997.

Pat I1977

oil and photography on canvas 25.5 x 20 cm

7 pat i 1977

 

Pat II1977

oil and photography on canvas 25.5 x 20 cm

8 pat-ii 1977

 

A similar split, but this time horizontal, is used in the two portraits of the artist’s wife from 1977 using the same photograph. Eyes and mouth are painted in turn as if the artist is exploring different aspects of the same figure. In Pat I the eyes have a steady, tender quality, whereas the mouth in the more dramatic Pat II is shut and hard.


The Studio (Self-Portrait)1977

oil on canvas, 106 x 71 cm

9 the-studio-self-portrait 1977

Of The Studio (Self-Portrait) 1977, Patricia Utermohlen says: “[it is set] in the garage of our Highgate flat, which William had converted into a very unsatisfactory studio. He sits on a wicker chair beside a large mirror in which he and his painting table are reflected. Behind him is his bulletin board on which we can see drawings. The oil heater is on the right, and sitting on top is the pan he uses to melt wax. He has painted his face atop an almost ghost-like photograph, and here the gaze is accusatory. He is proving, by surrounding himself with all his equipment, that he has tried to work in this impossible space.”

Soldier and Reflection1972

oil on canvas, 121 x 96 cm

10 soldier-and-reflection 

Soldier and Reflection 1972 is a commemorative painting, part of a series painted to honor the dead American soldiers in Vietnam. The sleeping/dead soldier lying below the peacock (symbol of immortality) looks curiously like William’s early self-portraits as a thin young man. The theme of a double portrait runs though the artist’s career from this image to the 1977 portrait mentioned earlier. It also appears later, in Bed 1991, which depicts the artist asleep—his face reflected in the wardrobe mirror as if in a separate world.

The Dante Cycle (1964 -1966) &

Mummers Parade Cycle (1969-1970)

Patricia Utermohlen recalls of the mid-1960s: “London, in the beginning of the sixties, was finally coming out of the tired grayness of the postwar period. Everything seemed to be changing rapidly; life had become lighter and more optimistic. Those of us interested in the visual arts became aware of the ‘pop art’ movement [of which] William’s former colleague, R.B. Kitaj, had become one of the leaders.” Abstract expressionism, the leading movement in contemporary art since the 1940s, was by then receding in the wake of the irreverent themes of pop art and the bright geometry of  “hard edge” abstraction.

In 1964, working against all three of these artistic currents, William began his first major cycle of paintings based on Dante’s 33 cantos of the Inferno. In their medieval literary references, the precision of their drawing, and their romantic depiction of pain, suffering, and death, the Dante cycle jarred with the optimistic and superficial mood of the mid-1960s. By the end of the cycle, William emerged as a mature and committed figurative painter. Of this cycle, Patricia notes: “William’s work, stressing as it did the independence and loneliness of the artist’s condition, was at variance with the contemporary world which was celebrating the strident, consumer-led excitement of modern urban life.”

A series of gallery exhibitions followed in New York and, most importantly, in 1969 at the famous Marlborough gallery in London, one of the few galleries representing major contemporary figurative artists of the time, notably, Francis Bacon and R. B. Kitaj. William’s work, so at odds with the artistic fashion of the day, met with mixed reviews. Ironically, he was criticized by Norbert Lynton, art critic for the London Guardian, for what was later to be seen as his greatest strength, namely, rich, symbolic narrative and a high level of draftsmanship.

William persisted in his unique path. He became more withdrawn, but continued to work obsessively. His next great cycle, the Mummers Parade, painted from 1969 to 1970, combined childhood memories of the Philadelphia new Year’s day parade with current media and television imagery alluding to the increasing disaster of the Vietnam war and the spreading social and political violence of late-1960s America. The Mummers cycle was exhibited to an uncomprehending public, this time at galleries d’Eendt in Amsterdam. In 1972, the artist tried to relaunch his career in America by accepting a post as artist-in-residence at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Life in America proved disappointing, though Patricia completed her master’s degree in art history at the University of Massachusetts. By 1975, the Utermohlens had returned to their old apartment in Highgate in London, where they both settled into a life of teaching in a variety of schools, including the Syracuse University London department.

The Dust Again (Canto XXIV)1966

oil on canvas, 152.5 x 120 cm

11 the-dust-again 1966

Dante’s Inferno was significant to William particularly after he discovered that in fifteenth-century Florence everyone could quote passages from Dante, who was called the “poet for cobblers and bakers” – baking being the trade of William’s father. The Dust Again (Canto XXIV) 1966 from the Dante cycle depicts Vanni Fucci, one of the most arrogant and blasphemous characters of the Inferno, a thief from Pistoia who is incinerated (after receiving a snakebite) and then regains his human form like the phoenix rising from the ashes. It is an intensely terrifying image. The handling of the tragic head and particularly the white forehead reappear 30 years later in William’s last self-portraits and Masks.

The Mummers Parade cycle 1969-70

The Mummers Parade is held each New Year's Day in Philadelphia. Local clubs compete in one of four categories (Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades). They prepare elaborate costumes and moveable scenery, which take months to complete. This is done in clubhouses, many of which are located on or near 2nd Street (called "Two Street" by some local residents) in South Philadelphia.

William began the Mummers cycle in 1969, based on his own memories of the Philadelphia New Year’s Day parade, and worked on it prior to his departure to America in 1972. In a letter dating from November 1970, the artist states: “the parade is becoming a vehicle for expressing my anxiety over the difficulties that the news media presents us with in an unrelenting stream. The threats of holocaust, famine, pestilence, and the Vietnam war are all entering the parade. I find these problems fit comfortably into the crowded, whirling, diving dance performed at the beginning of each year.” An elaborate metaphor for William’s American identity—his Philadelphian working-class roots combined with his later impressions of America now seen in “exile” from abroad—the Mummers is one of the richest and most complex series in the artist’s career.

Patricia Utermohlen has repeatedly commented on William’s consciousness of the class distinctions of Philadelphia and how he saw the Mummers parade as the only time in the year the south Philly dockworkers ever got to occupy the city center. These men, or their sons, were also the victims of the Vietnam war since they, rather than the affluent college students, intellectuals, or artists, were the ones most commonly called up for the draft. “All the long-held resentment of being an underdog is acted out in these pictures,” she says.

Many archetypes and symbols like the dance of death, the carnival figure, blackface, the clown (De Niro Comic Club), Uncle Sam (Happy New Year), the American Indian (New Year’s Morning), and stars and stripes (Uncle Sam’s Clowns) are used in the Mummers in a complex mix of art-historical allusion, Americana, and references to late-1960s issues, including the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war.

The emphasis on tragic mask-like heads in the Mummers cycle recurs in the late Masks and the artist’s own last self-portraits of 1995 to 2000.

Don’t Try to Clark Street Me1968

oil on canvas, 101 x 101 cm

12 dont-clark-street-me 1968

 

Don’t Try to Clark Street Me 1968 is a jazz picture in which the artist pays homage to his favorite American music. (Jazz bands also play a great role in the Mummers parade cycle of  1969-70)  The title is lifted from Chicago jazz musicians’ argot of the 1950s and is roughly translatable as “don’t B.S. me.”  The shut eyes give a contemplative look to the drummer as he is stilling the resonance of his cymbals. The saxophonist continues playing on the keys on the right. Black men in Bill’s paintings of this period also allude obliquely to the civil right issues and the violent conflicts that shook American society in the late 1960’s.

Uncle Sam’s Clowns 1969

oil, gold, and silver leaf on canvas, 106 x 138 cm

13 uncle-sama-clowns 1969

These Mummers belong to yet another South Philadelphia comic club whose costume incorporates the stars ands stripes. They wear the traditional White Clown make up, wide collar and pointed hat. In the circus and the carnival but also in art the clown is seen as performing outside the rules of regular society.  He  subverts the normal social order by mocking it and transgressing its rules. In this painting the artist has stressed the ferocity of the Mummers through their mocking red grins.  The “vulgar” but energetic flashiness of this working men’s parade is illustrated by the use of silver and gold leaf. The gold shoes refer to the signature tune of the Mummers’ parade: James A. Bland's Oh! Dem Golden Slippers.

Old Glory 1970

oil on canvas, 180 x 301 cm

14 old-glory 1970

William’s reaction to the unfairness of the military draft during the Vietnam War is best expressed in Old Glory. He says in a 1970 letter: “Old Glory shows the mummers in patriotic costume, dancing unaware of the four horsemen [of the apocalypse] behind them. These are the men, unskilled, mainly dockworkers, who will fight and die in Vietnam.”  In earlier versions for the painting, the seven Mummers appear dancing individually in their stars-and-stripes costumes. As the painting evolved the flag motif overtook the picture, becoming more and more prominent, until by the end it absorbed and flattened the seven figures leaving only their hands and heads apparent. At the same time the flag split at the top and bottom revealing a hellish darkness beyond. Out of the darkness ride forth the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Liberty Clowns1970

oil on canvas,  86.5 x 71 cm

15 liberty-clowns-1970

 

All his life William and admired and studied the Renaissance painters. Andrea Mantegna was one of his favorites. The impact of the hard, linear quality of this master’s draftsmanship and his precision in drawing feet and hands can be observed most particularly in the Mummers cycle.  Another aspect of Renaissance art that William Utermohlen absorbed were standard poses from religious paintings. The bending mummer in Liberty clowns while performing the typical “Mummers’ strut” is also reminiscent of the pose of Christ tied to the column in the Flagellation. The policeman’s club and the lit cigarette behind reinforce the theme of torture and oppression and underline the position of the Mummers as society’s underdogs and sacrificial victims.

De Niro Comic Club1970

oil on canvas, 121 x 76 cm

16 de-niro-comic-club 1970

 

The various Mummers clubs of south Philadelphia compete with each other for the prizes in the four categories of the New Year’ day Parade: Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades.  Their names reflect the history and sociology of South Philadelphia. De Niro is an Italian comic club having taken up this old ritual first brought to Philadelphia by the Swedes, English and Germans. African-Americans from the southern plantations contributed the Parade’s theme song, James A. Bland's Oh! Dem Golden Slippers. The gold slipperbecame the fetish shoe in the Parade in 1903. Utermohlhen often uses gold leaf to render the sheen of these famous shoes. Men in drag or "wenches" played female roles in the parade. The figure on the left here lifts his skirts to reveal lacy underwear but also very solid masculine calves.

New Year’s Morning 1970

1970 oil on canvas, 86 x 71 cm

17 new-years-morning 1970

 

The elaborate costume in gorgeous colors of the Indian chief from a “fancy division” moving down the  narrow street is like a vision of exotic splendor in the ambient grayness and drabness of South Philadelphia. This is how it must have struck William when he was a child, for he here he has carefully placed the chief  before his boyhood home whose street number appears on the edge of the curb to the left.

Happy New Year1970

oil on canvas 122 x 122 cm

A. Mackintosh collection, London

18 happy-new-year 1970

 

In Happy New Year the Mummers parade has finally reached the Philadelphia City Hall. Patricia Utermohlen has repeatedly commented on William’s consciousness of the class distinctions of Philadelphia and how he saw the Mummers parade as the only time in the year the south Philly dockworkers ever got to occupy the city center.  The cold classical architecture of the city hall represents the official city. Placed above the colorful anarchically swirling Mummers it seems about to descend upon them and crush them. Comics twirl their  multi-level umbrellas, Uncle Sam swings in the Mummers strut on the right and two figures one wearing a white wig and the second in an afro appear anachronistically in black face. Growing dissent from civil rights groups had lead the city to forbid black face paint in 1964. The artist here uses it to refer to the ongoing struggle for civil rights and to stress the theme of the underdog that the Mummers represent.

The Conversation Pieces  (1990 – 1991)

In 1989, the Utermohlens moved to their last house, a beautiful, light-filled, top-floor apartment facing the grand Union canal in “little Venice” in the Maida vale district of London. It was here that William painted one of the greatest painting cycles of his career, the Conversation Pieces of 1990 to 1991. These works, which can be seen as a celebration of Patricia and William’s life together, describe the warmth and happiness of their new flat and the joy they took in the companionship of friends. However, signs of the disease that is about to strike William are also apparent in the shifting perceptions of space, objects, and people. They are premonitions of a new world of silence and sensory deprivation about to close in on the artist. Clearly the artist’s most openly biographical pictures, this cycle centers on his wife, his friends, and his immediate environment: the objects, books, and paintings that have made his life meaningful and towards which he feels the greatest attachment.

In his analysis of the Conversation Pieces, the French psychoanalyst, Dr. Patrice poling, describes what he believes are fundamental shifts in perception evident in the six pictures. They are, according to Dr. Polini, premonitory of an impending change in the artist’s life, of which William is subconsciously aware. Dr. Polini underlines the spatial and temporal nature of the series’ titles:  the district (Maida Vale), the postal code (W9), the time of day (Night), the season (Snow), the room (Bed), the event taking place (Conversation). According to Dr Polini the artist tries to fix these on canvas in an attempt to preserve his spatial and temporal bearings and the precarious happiness of which his wife speaks. In parallel, the artist concentrates on strong and simple sensorial impressions: the sound of voices, the taste of coffee, wine, and cigarettes, the feelings of warmth and cold, again in an attempt to fix his perceptions before they slip away. Dr. Polini also sees the centrality of Patricia Utermohlen in all the pictures as psychologically important. She is William’s strongest emotional anchor to his world. These last pictures are dedicated to her but also attempt to speak to her as the artist is gradually losing his capacity for verbal communication. Dr. Polini points out how the artist excludes himself from the circles of talking figures and, when he does show himself, places his figure in a separate world: sleeping and dreaming in Bed, communing with mute animals in Snow.

W91990

oil on canvas, 120 x 120 cm

Beckel collection, chicago

19 w9 1990

In her analysis of the Conversation Pieces, Patricia Utermohlen always insists on the artist’s joy in his new house and studio in little Venice:  the light, the space, the views of the duck pond, the continuity between inside and out through the windows and skylights, and the walls painted in William’s favorite color, yellow.

“He began to register our life in the new environment with a series of paintings,” she recalls. “His intention seems to have been to fix in time and space forever the way we lived and the group of people who were our most intimate friends and all connected in some way to the arts. The animated discussions always took place around the dining

table which came from his parents’ house in America.  By using this format he was able to connect his past life with his present.”

In W9 Pat on the left is speaking animatedly to a good friend, Robyn Chessex. The jacket placed on a chair in the foreground belongs to William who uses it to discreetly signal his presence in the scene.

Maida Vale1990

oil on canvas, 76 x 88 cm

J. Peterson collection, Chicago

20 maida vale 1990

 

In Maida Vale Pat sits opposite a young art historian (later curator of modern art at the Tate gallery, London) and assistant in her own courses Ginny Button. The older art historian looks anxious as she confronts the calm concentrated gaze of the younger woman. The chair in the foreground tips towards Pat possibly signaling the silent  presence of her husband. The rich red of Ginny’s wine glass and her black costume are  the only jarring colors in this warm yellow composition.

Conversation1991

oil on canvas, 86 x 122 cm

C. Boïcos collection, Paris

21 the-conversation 1991

Pat gazes thoughtfully at James Farmer an old English friend of her husband’s.

He has the same calm, concentrated expression as Ginny Button in Maida Vale and lifts his hand as if to signal something to Pat. The black cat (Robson) at bottom right is also trying to draw her attention. The composition is reminiscent of a classic Annunciation with James in the position of the angel and Pat in that of the Virgin receiving the divine  message. The painting W9 is visible on an easel in a mirror reflection of the artist’s studio directly behind James, pointing to the artist’s domain in the house and to his vocation.  On the right a bookcase with colorful books and a 1930’s canvas by the artist’s teacher Walter Steumpfig signals Pat’s vocation as art historian and authority on historical painting.

A saturated intense red has invaded the tipped up table top and begins spreading on other objects in the room heightening the tension between the two figures as a bowl slides off the corner of the table bottom right.

Snow1990-1991

oil on canvas, 193 x 241 cm

22 snow 1991

 

Alterations in spatial perception become clear particularly in the topsy-turvy space in Snow where William indicates the way to his new studio in the house on the mezzanine above the dining area. The viewer negotiates the many obstacles in the space—the green chairs around the red dining room table, the blue table with the oranges, the fish tank, the creeping green plant—to finally reach the staircase leading up to the overhanging mezzanine painted a violent red. The green door at the back opens to a foreboding darkness. Dr. Polini comments on the gradual simplification and saturation of the colors—flat yellows, blacks, reds, greens. Red, the color of pain overwhelms the center of the composition.

The artist has separated himself from the circle of talking figures around the table and has placed himself to the right in the company of the mute animals. Robson, the black cat, stares out at us with his bright yellow eyes. The cold snow-covered garden to the right of the artist has a forbidding tomb like quality, its gray and white emptiness the precise opposite to the warm, object-filled room. Clearly the foundations of the artist’s world, his perceptual and psychological bearings are beginning to shift.

The fragmented nature of the space can of course also be attributed to a reexamination of Picasso’s and Braque’s cubism (two artists of whom William often spoke.) The dominant decorative patterns and use of the goldfish clearly point to Matisse  (his favorite modern painter.) Fragmented spaces and patterns and the prevalent use of black and red are also visible in older paintings in the Dante and Mummers cycles and in Self-Portrait (Split) 1977. Whatever the personal or perceptual changes occurring in William’s mind in 1990, the artistic reflection and continuity is clearly still there.

Bed1991

oil on canvas, 122 x 152 cm

23 bed 1991

The artist portrays himself  asleep in the bed that used to belong to his own parents. Unlike his wife he can no longer read. The bed is tipping precariously to the left towards the green door opening to reveal a narrow dark slit. The same dramatic black is given to Robson the sleeping male cat. A reflection in the wardrobe mirror on the left shows the sleeping artist in the world of dreams. An intense saturated red has overwhelmed the bedspread and the strange imaginary flowers on the busy wall paper.

Night1990-1991

oil on canvas 152 x 122 cm

Meigs collection, paris

24 night 1991

 

Pat gazes absent mindedly towards Ginny Button, a young art historian and her teaching assistant in her university courses. Ginny is drinking and gesturing expressively as she expounds on a point, her eyes shut and oblivious of her companions. A close friend of Pat’s, June Carroll, leans towards Pat in an anxious manner grasping her coffee mug as her finger hesitantly touches Pat’s mug.  The blackness of night visible through the skylight has invaded the yellow interior taking over the table top. The bitter black of the coffee from the pot has overwhelmed the mellow red richness of the wine in Ginny’s glass. An intensely  red flower hovers disturbingly above Pat as the fish basin floats up towards her as if trying to capture her attention

The Last Portraits (1995 – 2000)

In 1995 William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In Blue Skies, his last large painting, William paints his reaction to this knowledge: a devastated figure holding on to a table as on to a raft in the blue bleakness of an empty studio. The artist was admitted to the national hospital for neurology and neurosurgery at Queen Square and supervised by a team led by Dr. Martin Rossor and nurse Ron Isaacs. While at the hospital, William was encouraged to continue drawing and to portray himself. These drawings became the subject of a notable article published in June 2001 in the British medical journal The Lancet.

Patricia Utermohlen comments on this time: “as each small self-portrait was completed, William showed it to his nurse, Ron Isaacs. Ron visited the studio, photographing every new work. Ron’s conviction that William’s efforts were helping to increase the understanding of the deeply psychological and traumatic aspects of the disease undoubtedly encouraged William to continue.”

The last self-portraits, painted between 1995 and 2001, are indeed unique artistic, medical, and psychological documents. They portray a man doomed yet fighting to preserve his identity and his place in the world in the face of an implacable disease encroaching on his mind and senses. With perseverance, courage, and honesty, the artist adapts at each point his style and technique to the growing limitations of his perception and motor skills to produce images that communicate with clarity and economy from within his predicament. To the very end, color, brushwork, and line retain their artistic and expressive vocation, the result of a lifetime dedicated to visual and psychological observation and the faithful rendering of facts.

William Utermohlen made his last drawings in pencil from 2000 to 2002. He was taken care of by his wife, friends, and caregivers at home until his deterioration made his admission to the Princess Louise nursing home necessary in 2004. He died in Hammersmith hospital in London on March 21, 2007.

Blue Skies1995

oil on canvas, 152 x 122 cm

25 blue skies 1995

 

Patricia Utermohlen recollects the beginning of this final artistic period in her husband’s life: “William was not happy in the mezzanine studio, so it was decided he should move to a studio outside the house in the east end of London. We were soon aware that something serious was happening. He got lost traveling to the studio and began to miss appointments.” Blue Skies was painted in the new studio; it was to be his last large work.

It is empty by comparison with the other pictures,  and painted in a much more urgent manner …  Obviously it is a self- portrait.   He sits alone at his painting table,  no evidence of paints and brushes.   The color composition of the whole  picture is simple,  just  a burnt sienna yellow and deep ultramarine blue,  the only break is a little white and the happy light yellow table top that reminds us of his hopeful pictures.   The figure is dominated by the empty space,  one hand grasps the cup,  and the other hangs on to the table for reassurance,  whilst above him is  the skylight.  Although the shape is reminiscent of the other studio shape in Snow, his one leads to nowhere,  just to a terrifying lonely emptiness.”

According to Dr Polini in order to continue functioning, the artist must be able to capture this catastrophic moment.  He must depict the unspeakable – a certain knowledge of his own end. Rarely has a painting spoken so clearly of the ending of psychic life and the desperate effort to continue to exist by continuing to depict the world.

Desperate Figure 1995

Pencil on Paper 21 x 29.5 cm

26 desperate figure 1995

The pose of this figure who has fallen onto a tabletop is reminiscent of the bent over figure of the artist in the painting Blue Skies. Here, however, the feeling of collapse is complete. The figure is not holding on to the table or the mug anymore and seems stricken and lifeless, the puppet-like head resting on the table and turning to face us.

Self- Portrait With Cat1995

pencil on paper, 43 x 31.5 cm

27 self-portrait-with-cat

 

Brought back from his east end studio, William was reinstated into the mezzanine above the dining room. In the portraits that William painted there, from now until the final loss of his motor skills, he illustrated the emotional and sensorial impressions of a man who knew he was losing his mental faculties. A spectrum of emotions—depression, bewilderment, and resignation—was expressed in the works that followed. All three emotions are visible in Self-Portrait With Cat 1995. no change

Double Self-Portrait  1996

pencil on paper, 31.5 x 43 cm

28 double-self-portrait 1996

 

In Double Self-Portrait 1996, the artist focused on the contour of his skull, which he delineated twice in the head on the left. His gaze here is heavy and resigned and the sagging cheeks are those of an old man. In the head on the right, the black eyes glare out powerfully. Their expression is angry and bruised.

Broken Figure1996

mixed media on paper, 32.5 x 47 cm

29 broken-figure 1996

In Broken Figure 1996 the artist focuses on his physical decline. He has depicted himself  as a dislocated puppet. Geometric diagrams, of the kind given to dementia patients to draw as tests, loom ominously above him with laboriously scribbled lines at his right foot. His  doctors want to know if William can still memorize a list of words, complete a simple subtraction, name ordinary objects, or copy geometric shapes. The humiliation of failing to answer these simple questions shatters his self-confidence.

In the Studio (Self-Portrait)1996

mixed media on paper, 45.5 x 32.5 cm

J. Arcocha collection, Paris

30 in-the-studio 1996

In the Studio (Self-Portrait) 1996, the artist’s right arm is broken to pieces. Though he is right handed he is drawing using his left arm. The source of his illness is indicated by a pink smear of oil paint on his forehead. The eyes are covered in obliterating pencil marks, a blue streak shuts off the mouth giving the artist a mute appearance.

Mask (Black Stripes) 1996

ink wash on paper 45 x 35 cm

C. Joynes collection, Chicago

31 mask-black-stripes 1996

The empty silhouette of the head against the black black bars represents a blank, the artist’s impending end. The bars indicate also what must be the claustrophobic sensation of dementia as it progresses: the feeling of being increasingly shut in, as in a cage, in one’s own head and cut off from the surrounding world.

Mask (Black Marks) 1996

watercolor  on paper,  45 x 35 cm

32 mask-black-marks 1996

This watercolor represents a primitive death’s head or mask . Patricia Utermohlen associates the freedom and urgency of the watercolor style of these late heads to German expressionism, the primitive and psychic renderings of heads by artists like Emil Nolde or Ludwig Kirchner.

The absence of a nose, ears and the diminutive mouth indicated by five red dots may point to the progressive breakdown of the sensory organs that Alzheimer’s patients must experience.

Mask (Clown) 1996

watercolor  on paper,  21 x 25 cm

33 mask-clown 1996

In most portraits there is an emphasis on the frontal lobe of the skull, where William knows the source of his illness lies. A white substance (possibly associated with scanned images of his own brain and medical imaging depicting amyloid plaques) appears in several oils and watercolors, as in Mask (Clown) 1996. In these Masks, painted rapidly and spontaneously in watercolor and dated to 1996,William expresses his emotional anguish in the most direct possible manner.

 

Self-Portrait (Sad)1996

pencil on paper , 34 x 24 cm

D. Beckel collection, Paris

34 self-portrait-sad 1996

The artist here looks sad and resigned to his fate. The pronounced lines under the eyes, the sagging cheeks and neck, the bushy white tufts of hair are those of an aging, decaying man. The left eye with the black pupil is the most vivacious, as indeed in the early Self Portrait 1955, and the right eye extinguished and blank.

 

Self-Portrait (Red) 1996

mixed media on paper, 46.5 x 33 cm

C. Poilleux collection, Paris

35 self-portrait-red 1996

The artist seems to mourn his lost self in Self-Portrait (Red) 1996. He has become a shadow of his former self, and the clothes floating on the ghostly body show the bright red color of pain. The front part of the scull, the source of his illness, is sharply outlined Red  and green are here the dominant colors as yellow and orange fade into insignificance. The same two colors indicate illness and pain in the late paintings of Vincent Van Gogh.

Self-Portrait (Green) 1997

oil on canvas, 35.5 x 35.5 cm

36 self-portrait-green 1996

The asymmetrical features of Self-Portrait (Green) 1997, with the extended right ear, are strangely reminiscent of the earliest self-portrait in the exhibition, the pencil portrait of 1955. In the 1997 portrait, William expresses his emotions with remarkable precision using a new style of rough brushwork and bold drawing. Sadness, anxiety, resignation, and the feeling of feebleness are all apparent. The creamy pink streaks on the forehead and the distorted features are also reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s self portraits. The implacable black background represents the end.

Self-Portrait (Yellow) 1997

oil on canvas, 35.5 x 35.5 cm

Elan Pharmaceuticals Collection, San Francisco
37 self-portrait-yellow 1997
 

The expression in this portrait is that of a grumpy old man who is angry and cross. The rough paint surfaces approximate a style that Patricia Utermohlhen compares to early 20th century German Expressionism. The composition built around the opposition of  yellow and blue and the urgent quality of the brushwork also recall Vincent Van Gogh.

Self-Portrait (With Easel—Yellow and Green) 1996

mixed media on paper, 46 x 35 cm

Elan Pharmaceuticals Collection, San Francisco to check

38 self-portrait-with-easel 1996

In this portrait  William bears witness to his experience of living with Alzheimer’s disease. The world has shrunk and he peers at it as if trapped behind prison bars. His expression is focused and angry as if defying fate. This is the most aggressive of the late self portraits.

Pat 1997

oil on canvas, 35.5 x 35.5 cm

C. Boïcos collection, Paris

39 pat 1997

The only portrait of another that William painted at the end of his life was that of his wife Patricia. She observes: “Pat 1997 is the last picture of me and was painted from memory. I had red hair when first we met. I do not have blue eyes, but I do have a brown-striped shirt. My ear seems to have enlarged, and I am seen in the same position as in all the late self-portraits. It remains a reasonable likeness.” The tender yet apprehensive gaze speaks of fear, loss, and bewilderment— emotions that William seems to see in his wife and also projects onto her as his caregiver.

Self-Portrait (With Saw) 1997

oil on canvas, 35.5 x 35.5 cm

C. Boïcos collection, Paris

40 self-portrait-with-saw 1997

The encroachment of a claustrophobic and silent world, which many people with Alzheimer’s must experience as they gradually lose their sense of space and control over their senses, is apparent in the framing shapes of Self-Portrait (With Saw) 1997. In 1997, William learns that only at autopsy will his doctors be able to definitively diagnose his Alzheimer’s disease. This notion haunts him, and he speaks of it constantly to those close to him.  The saw is an open allusion to this distressing fact, and to the artist’s consent to have his brain dissected after death.

Self-Portrait (With Easel) 1998

oil on canvas, 35.5 x 25 cm

P. Odille Collection, Paris

41 self-portrait-with-easel 1998

Self-Portrait (With Easel) 1998 depicts the artist’s head tightly framed by the rectangle of his easel. The head now floats detached from the body. The left eye retains its vivid dark  pupil (as in the early Self Portrait 1955) and the right eye is blank. Green and red are again the dominant colors. This is the last self portrait in which the artist’s features are still recognizable.

Erased Self-Portrait 1999

oil on canvas, 45.5 x 35.5 cm

42 erased-self-portrait 1999

After 1998 William experienced increased difficulty in handling oil paints. On the last painted self-portrait, Erased Self-Portrait 1999, the features have been scratched out and painted over by the artist in a possible act of frustration.

Head I 2000

pencil on paper , 40.5 x 33 cm

43 head 2000

Head I 2000 is one of the last, frightening heads drawn in pencil by the artist. The artist has assimilated his drawing method to his destiny: to subsist while disappearing. Perception can still call forth a primal image, but what emerges is also foreign and threatening to the artist’s sense of self. A deepening crack runs through the center of the face in this haunting sketch. The staring eyes are now like empty dark cavities fixed onto a head turning into a skull.

To see the calatogue for the exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center July 2008 click here.

cover Chicago July 2008